Reading Good Books

So, I am in a weird position where both Frank Herbert’s Dune and A Game Of Thrones sit unread on my shelf, whereas I’ve downed a million cheap thrillers. It’s time for me to start reading the classics.

So, I’m putting myself on a book-reading moratorium (at least of cheap thrillers) until I finish both of them. Thankfully, I read very fast. And of course I’ll give my opinions.


The Nintendo Direct

So, the newest Nintendo Direct was released.

Nothing for the new mainline Pokemon and Fire Emblem games that we still know very little confirmed knowledge of save for the fact that they exist. (Either E3 or a standalone announcement, I suppose, which makes sense given their size and prominence). So, that disappointment was there-if you can call it a disappointment.

As for me, well, it was like “ok, stuff that looks kinda neat, stuff I’m not really interested in, oooh-No More Heroes, ok, ok, Undertale for the Switch-Whoa! Ok, ok, hmm, that was decent, port announcements, ok, uh, uh, so I suppose it’s-uh, wait-SMASH BROTHERS! WHOA BABY IT’S SMASH BROTHERS!”

It is, indeed, the announcement and reveal of the newest Smash Bros. My delight can hardly be contained.

Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers

So, I read Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers and for the most part enjoyed it. It’s a cliche “cheap thriller”, but it’s not a bad cheap thriller in spite of its flaws. If you want to see tanks firing and exploding, it has that.

So, it’s a post-USSR technothriller, which means it plucks an opponent of the week, in this case a sanctions-less, aggressive Iraq. There’s a war, and that’s pretty much all I need to say about the overall plot.

The best part of the book is the middle portion. It reads like a somewhat clunkier Team Yankee, but the upgraded T-72 vs. M1A1 action is good, and the way Farmer evened the odds is something I appreciate. The beginning is pretty stock technothriller (a combination of training scenes and infodumps in offices and conference rooms), and the end drags on too long, contains the shoved-in damsel in distress love story, and a bit of near-Dale Brown escalation.

Still, Tin Soldiers is not a bad book if you like cheap thrillers or tanks.

RIP Ursula K Le Guin

The famed science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, has passed away. I regrettably have had only the slightest contact with her writing, but even I knew her influence. RIP.

Team Yankee

I’ve just finished Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee, the classic tank novel.

By its own terms, it’s not the best book.

It’s like a micro-scale Red Storm Rising. (I don’t mean in tone, or obvious setting, I mean it’s a decent but dated and over-jargoned book). It’s a little too clinical. Too much explanation of attacks and formations and stuff in detail, like Coyle wanted to show off what he knew. At times I thought “this is like Melville, only with tanks instead of sailing ships”.

The characters away from the main group aren’t that good. The wife subplot seems superfluous, cutting to an A-10 pilot or headquarters officer is a little jarring, and the occasional Soviet viewpoint character exists basically to go “curse those dastardly Americans!”

And yet when comparing it to the later WW3 imitators I’ve seen on the internet and self-published fiction, it comes across as better. For while it has the flaws mentioned above, it also has one thing a lot of the later ones don’t-a truly consistent narrative. The viewpoint disruptions aren’t too bad, and some are indeed tied in to the main action, which cannot be said for others. This alone makes it worth a read.

Heat Signature

So, I got and beat the game Heat Signature. It’s a fantastic game. Quite possibly the greatest “Hit people with wrenches” simulator I’ve ever played.

To be more serious, I was actually a little skeptical of it, given its nominal relationship to super-twitch reflex-why-do-you-hate-yourself hard Hotline Miami. But it’s pausable, and when I actually played it, I saw right away the influence of its predecessor by the same creator, Gunpoint.

The two games make it so that your character is vulnerable but not weak, and trying weird gimmicks and self-imposed challenges is part of the fun. Hit people with wrenches, then nonchalantly get sucked into space after breaking a window on purpose to make your getaway.

If I had to give some criticisms of the game, I’d single out two. The first is that the environments can get kind of samey, being procedurally generated on certain templates. The other is that the in-game difficulty doesn’t scale very well, on “Audacious” and “Mistake”-level missions, I found myself either skipping them as cost-ineffective or munchkining my way through with special builds-they didn’t feel as satisfying as the “Hard” mode.

But Heat Signature is a really, really good game nonetheless.



A Big Post on Military Fiction

I’ve wanted to write this post in some form or another for a while. Getting the tone right was going to be important. I now feel I’m comfortable enough to try. Because I found two “a-ha!” moments where I could finally say clearly what I’d been thinking in vaguer terms.

The First Moment

So, wargames and military fiction have been linked together for quite a while. After all, it was the original Harpoon tabletop version where the naval action in Red Storm Rising was famously gamed out. I’d known this for a while, but the connection just emerged to me. It was reading the detailed orders of battle.

I’ve made my previous opinions on wargaming a battle pretty clear. It can be a good help, but deserves to be used in moderation, not taken too literally. My previous concern was that a wargamed-out battle would appear too robotic, but I was thinking too narrow.

Basically, there’s a common complaint about “wannabe movie director” video game developers. One of the most frequently spoken is Hideo Kojima, but he’s far from the only one. Trying to make a game cinematic is not a bad thing by itself[1], and Metal Gear Solid at least deserves some credit for refining, if not inventing, the detailed game experience. (I specifically mentioned the first game, before the series just got really, really weird).

So thus came the writing, and I thought that a similar case applied here. Some of the crunchier military fiction writers never quite got out of the wargamer’s mindset. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a way of approaching things. It’s just my personal tastes lay in a different, strange direction.

This sort of thing-big, deep OOBs, possibly wargamed out directly, is fascinating because while I’d look down on it from a literary perspective, if it was in Command, Steel Panthers, or another proper wargame, with all the research and detail incorporated in to the scenario, I’d actually jump at the chance to play it. Let me put it this way:

If the author plans “Ok, the _______ Infantry Division of reservists dug in near __________ is going to encounter the ____________ Tank Division, earmarked by the army commander as an operational maneuver group, and conducting an exploitation mission. The tank division has, out of a sense of either overconfidence or believing it to be part of their mission, chosen to slam into the formation instead of trying to pin or move around it”, it’s probably going to come across differently than if they plan it as “The protagonist is in his rapidly dug trench when suddenly he hears and sees a large group of tanks and IFVs heading his way.” This is not a knock at the hypothetical author, nor is it a claim to be “bad” beyond my opinion-it’s just understandably different, even if subconsciously so. (My biggest complaint is that the fog of war is often, perhaps accidentally, lifted if the author knows exactly what’s there on both sides)

I’m forgiving of a lot of authors. I’d understand if a wargamer writing narrative fiction earnestly and sincerely went with what they were comfortable with. I’m trying hard to move away from the sneering critic I fear I once was[2]. You have to start somewhere. It’s just that what works in one situation doesn’t necessarily work in another, especially if the work isn’t just a “pseudo-history” with no pretensions of being anything else.

And just as how the film influence is present in (too?) many video games, the wargame influence is present in a lot of the military stories I’ve read. For better and worse. I’d say that the “better” part means that the stories are often more grounded than the superweapon gizmos of authors like Dale Brown and Clive Cussler, something even I can appreciate.

[1]I think that the more focused, cinematic world of Fallout: NV done by the story-focused Obsidian works better than the gameplay/exploration one of Fallout 3 done by the sandbox-focused Bethesda, to give a non-military example.

[2]Another reason why is that I tend to look to the fringes, and better-done stories in the genre paradoxically tend to blur into being good time-passers. Worse ones tend to stand out, and I don’t want to pigeonhole an entire genre based on even accidental selection (imagine if you took the films covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and did serious cinema analysis for an analogy of how you could skew that). So I’m less judgemental overall, which doesn’t stop me from noticing common trends or slamming/writing Bad Fiction Spotlights of individual works. I just don’t want to write off an entire genre.

The Second Moment

The second moment when my opinion finally was realized happened when I saw how the genre used the same kind of plot device as one that would be in what I’d think was the total opposite-romance.

If lots of detail alone was the deal-breaker, the kind of thing that made me go “ick”, then pseudo-historical timelines would have been the worst. But instead I find them more tolerable on average. It was something innocent and well-intentioned. Basically, at the heart of crunchy war stories lies a similar plot device as at the heart of—romance stories. And this isn’t something along the lines of “they romanticize war”, it’s a direct analogy.

The issue is one of connection with the audience. After all, it’s easier to identify with a plain-Jane without too much in the way of income than it is with a stunning tigress who drives a Rolls-Royce. It’s an anchor that adds to the fantasy, keeping it grounded even when the rest of the story is implausible, often to ridiculous extents. Likewise, the detail and weird semi-realism, by having the tanks be in the right place, in the right units, working the right way, is the anchor that keeps it grounded, even when the rest of the story is implausible.

This is not a bad thing in the slightest. Detail and realism are good things to strive for, as is making a character more grounded, relatable, and struggling. Yes, they can be, and are often distorted or taken to excess. But it can be done well, and even when it isn’t, it’s generally done sincerely and earnestly rather than cynically.

The Third World War

Now for what was originally going to be the entire focus of what became this post[1]. World War III fiction. This takes the form of a concluding list rather than the main body. I decided to move away from it because I felt I was cherry-picking. So I’ll try to be broader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre, and nothing completely stopping it from being done well. But I do think it’s harder to do well.

The first is that there’s precedents from the pioneers, the likes of Clancy and Bond, that have gotten used and followed in ways that have been ultimately distortionary and negative. However, I think there’s more to it, and that the kind of story that became what comes to mind when I think “WW3 story” is tough (at least by my probably too-high standards) to do right.

Tough enough that even Clancy and Bond fell short. Let’s start with my favorite gripe. You have a lot of viewpoint characters, so they’re tougher to balance in ways that ensure they don’t dilute into blandness or disrupt the narrative too much. Then you have to balance detail and plot in a way that you don’t have to worry about as much in either a straight pseudohistory or less “crunchy” narrative. Then you have to worry about stuff like how it started and how it stayed (most of the time) largely conventional. It’s a tough balancing act, and I can see why many WW3 tales fall short (which is not the same as them being worthless or not enjoyable). But I would never tell anyone “Don’t Try”. By all means, go ahead-I’ve been pleasantly surprised before.


This is something I’ve wanted to write for a while. Now it’s out there.

[1]This was going to be a series of posts, then a possible ebook, then I decided to make it the big blog post you see here.



If I read normal fiction

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I read “normal” books. And in some cases I do. But-I feel like I’d have missed something if I hadn’t read the undiscovered gems, the hilariously bad monsters, and even the bland potboilers I dig through to get the former two.

That’s just my taste to find the weird and different, I suppose.

Good Fiction Spotlight: The Defense of Hill 781

It’s time for another Good Fiction Spotlight, in light of all the “Bad Fiction Spotlights” I’ve done. This Good Fiction Spotlight goes to James McDonough’s The Defense of Hill 781.

The book is intended as a late Cold War version of the classic Defence of Duffer’s Drift and is styled as such. The action is evenhanded, detailed, and possibly a little over-detailed. But here’s what sets it apart. Instead of trying to move away from its inherent artificiality, it embraces it completely.

There are very good reasons for this in the proper context-it’s meant to be educational and show the equivalent of a “battle” in the National Training Center in detail-this isn’t attempting to illustrate a full World War III or any other story in any other sense. It’s not like I think McDonough made a deliberate stylistic choice to focus the story entirely on a completely artificial engagement. It was just the nature of a Duffer’s Drift-style tale.

However inadvertedly, the book nonetheless is the closest in-print work to the kind of artificial OPFOR thriller I talked about wanting to see-making no pretentions about being anything more than what it is, and having a sense of humor that stands out in an otherwise serious genre.

Nothing Vulgar about this conlang tool

I have discovered an excellent tool for conlanging that has helped me get over the hump of trying to come up with names and basic places.

That tool is called Vulgar. It has a free/demo version and a relatively cheap full version. At the push of a button, you can make a gramatically distinct and coherent language with a distinct vocabulary. Just tweak a few phonemes, and it can be distinct without resembling garbled English full of apostrophes.

For making names in non-English languages, it’s helped me tremendously. All I need to do is fire it up, yank a few terms that could easily be applied to proper names, and there I have it. I highly recommend Vulgar. For those who know linguistics, it’s not a substitute for a hand-built conlang and was never intended to be one, but it’s invaluable nonetheless.